“A Cow Standing on My Heart”: A Conversation with Caren Beilin

By Patrick CottrellJune 13, 2022

“A Cow Standing on My Heart”: A Conversation with Caren Beilin
CAREN BEILIN IS the author of a novel, The University of Pennsylvania (Noemi Press, 2014); a work of autofiction, Spain (Rescue Press, 2018); and a nonfiction book, Blackfishing the IUD (Wolfman Books, 2019). Her latest novel, Revenge of the Scapegoat, was published this spring by one of my favorite small presses, Dorothy. 

Beilin’s work is at once ecstatic, bizarre, vulnerable, and bold. In Revenge, Iris, an adjunct creative writing professor who has rheumatoid arthritis, receives a package from her father that includes letters that blame her for being the source of the family’s difficulties. She flees the city for the country, where she takes on a job as a cowherd at a small art museum. Beilin’s style, if sometimes obscure, is never boring. It’s kaleidoscopic, unwieldy, joyful, shifting with unexpected turns and leaps: “I had on very very dark-green shoes, a black-green vegan leather more like a liquid you would press from a hot tampon you are pulling now, by the lamplight, out of a toad’s omnibus of Anaïs Nin.” It’s not often I read a work and want to know, simply, how. How did the writer write this?

Beilin discussed her new novel with me via email.


PATRICK COTTRELL: What struck me immediately about Revenge of the Scapegoat was the sentence about the tampon and the toad’s Anaïs Nin omnibus. The sentence takes such surprising turns in contrast to the first sentence, the declaration: “I was upset.” There’s this wild interiority that animates the narrator’s voice. Could you talk perhaps about how this voice arrived when you began the book?

CAREN BEILIN: That sentence is actually the animating sentence of the book. Maybe this book has eight or nine origin stories, but one of them is that I worked on a short story for about a year that was going nowhere but I clung to it strongly because it had that sentence in it. I thought, how can this short story be so bad if that sentence is so nice? Or it delights me anyway … I’m pretty dense. It took me that whole year to realize that you can lift a good sentence, you can airlift it right out of there. So, when I started working on Revenge, I knew I wanted a series of sentences that used different kinds of book-things (omnibus, oeuvre, pleiade), with people (Anaïs Nin, Tilda Swinton, Irigaray, Duras), and then some kind of nice material (period blood, molten soufflé…), in order, basically, to describe the color of something. So that was one of the language games that kicked it off.

Eight or nine origin stories? That’s amazing. I’d love to read them all. Rachel Cusk once said something about how a novel’s structure is like a building. I’m paraphrasing, but the gist was you have to build it so it stays standing when you’re not in it. I’m curious about the structure of Revenge. Did it reveal itself over time as you wrote it, or did you know the novel would be largely centered on conversations with characters, with movement from the city to the country and back?

If that’s how Rachel Cusk works, I’d say keep doing what you’re doing because holy shit. She has such a sharp, a stringent mind. She is so capable and right, relaxed (like, cool) and incendiary. I am not much of a plot planner, and I’d never outline, that would be a killer for me — yet, using Bouvard and Pécuchet as key figures in this novel (they become Iris’s feet) gave me the idea to use the structure of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, which I describe in Revenge as a lapidary circle. Those retirees end up right back where they started! So, in a way I always knew Iris/Vivitrix would be headed back to Ray, back to Philly. I have such a gnarly, overwhelming disinterest in plot, so I love to give over all of that to a previous structure, to work in an always already preordained sort of mode. And then, that is Bouv and Péc’s function, they are character-functions who go to the country and return — I followed my feet, as it were.

The origin stories are all spread out, some happening years ago or when I was very young, some from the charged summer of 2020 when I did a large amount of the actual writing of this. All of these things are like the spiritual groundwork for the book. Maybe in a Cusk way (god I wish) what I need to build is a spiritual home for a book, something built out of routinized walking in cow fields in Massachusetts, or in conversations with a friend, in all the journaling and the weird hours I spent at the library copying out by hand René Girard’s The Scapegoat years back, for no certain reason.

This novel is at least these two things: a stoner novel and an Artist’s Way novel. I got so stoned. I put on puppet shows of my feet (at the time in deep pain from the arthritis) as Bouv and Péc. In the summer of 2020, I did The Artist’s Way — have you ever ventured there? It gifted me such a great, great time. I went to the creek sitting on the rocks the happiest lizard, journaling and loving and healing myself (at least a little) and then wrote this shit in the afternoons. Thank you, Julia Cameron.

Iris/Vivitrix is an adjunct who teaches creative writing in Philadelphia. She was also recently diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Do you see a connection between the situation of an adjunct and autoimmune disease? I’m thinking here about anxiety, precarity, and inflammation.

This would be a fascinating sociological study … I don’t know if I could say. Some of my friends are around my age, in precarious work/financial situations, and dealing with chronic illness. But then, the ones who are full-time profs are also it seems dealing with chronic illness. So, I don’t know. Life is stressful, and stresses the body, in so many ways. I think there’s a connection between environmental and/or topical toxicity and autoimmunity, which is maybe why autoimmunity is increasingly an epidemic. The birth control activist Florencia Kot Hansen recently sent me a peer-reviewed study that suggests a correlation between RA disease activity and the level of copper (due to heavy-metal pollution) in township farm soil samples in Taiwan. Putting a copper IUD in my uterus when I was working as an adjunct was, I would say, a pretty topical way to expose myself to toxicity.

In some ways, when I was an adjunct, it was nice. I fucked off more, not beholden to the institution. I had Obamacare, which was very, very good coverage for like $60/month. But I hear it’s gotten more expensive these days … And I wasn’t dealing with debt. So, those were helpful things, but a lot of people are dealing with debt. Mostly I had an emotional/pride issue, like I really couldn’t wrap my head around my own disposability. I remember I learned I was being given no classes one semester and was walking around in a daze. I’d completely changed my diet to help manage the RA, but in a fog went into this café and ordered a ham and butter sandwich on this big gluten-y baguette, went into the park, sat on a bench, and ate it, almost crying. I wanted to be held by an institution, but institutions don’t have human arms.

I wanted to talk with you about Flaubert’s novel Bouvard and Pécuchet, which I adore. I love the way objects and scenes accrue without narrative effect. In your novel, your narrator names her feet after Flaubert’s antiheroes, so there’s obviously some affinity there. What drew you to these two kindred spirits?

I love them. They are so dear, and fussy, and funny, and I love Flaubert. I was always told this novel is like a limit-text, only for the most die-hard of experimental literature readers. But I teach this to undergrads, and they need no help with it. This novel — talking here of Bouvard and Pécuchet — is like a release, it’s so scrupulous and enumerating, full of such lunacies, idiocies, such romantic foppish notions. It reminds me of what it’s like to be a writer. You go into something, you research, you profess your devotion to what you’re doing, but what are you, out in the country, what are you doing? There’s such cuteness in this novel. Bouv and Péc are so cute and huffy, they are on to something. It’s so strange, trying to make a life out of nothing, which is sort of what one does maybe even very particularly if one is not reproducing the nuclear family. These forced and flexed lines of devotion, maybe idiotic or dear or crumpled, but something of it all remains. A glimmery dusk at your failed farm, etc.

I also want to talk about trauma, which is obviously something the book addresses directly and circles around. Iris states, “There was nothing political, topical to it” — meaning the experience of receiving the package of letters her father sends her. Iris’s brother thinks her father didn’t mean any actual harm by sending her the package. Their father was simply “clearing out some drawers.” The thoughtlessness or possible absentmindedness of a banal action that leads to acute psychic pain is something everyone has experienced. Sometimes, the ambiguity of the situation is what can be so hurtful. In what ways do you think your novel works within and against the concept of the trauma plot?

There’s a lot of plausible deniability when it comes to the family scapegoat. Don’t be so sensitive! What’s with you? It feels like we have to walk on eggshells around you … This is all maddening (to the scapegoat). And when someone says, “It’s harmless,” what do they mean? That it didn’t harm them? I’m not totally caught up on all the latest discourse around “the trauma plot,” but I guess in general I eschew psychological realism in favor of a realism that lays itself bare to the reality of genocides. This novel in part is my way of mourning the ways in which relations within my family were and are deranged by the Holocaust, even generations and continents later. There’s all this buzz in the news right now about Art Spiegelman’s Maus, it being banned — this is probably the closest I’ve come to rewriting Maus for myself, for my family.

Some of my students are interested in the overlap between fiction and theory. I’m interested in the way Caroline, the director of the mARTin, functions as this character-vessel who goes off on absurdist digressions about psychoanalytic models of the family, futurity, and heteronormativity while Iris is trying to process her childhood.

Theory is still churning in me and around my life. I got a big dose of it in school and my partner, Jean-Paul Cauvin, does history of philosophy and is a very astonishing book collector who goes by deathhustler on Dennis Cooper’s blog. One morning, we were having coffee and started talking about “the family” and I asked if I could record. This was, too, at a heady time when I was going through a lot of my own familial ruptures, and we had a lot of talks like this. Pretty much all of Caroline’s dialogue in this section is from Jean-Paul, from that lovely morning. But then all the plot and what Iris/Vivitrix says in response I crafted later, kind of abusing his interesting thoughts as I made them into a murder plot for my own purposes. The theorist, in this case, is a bit of a murderess.

I must attribute what I feel is the brilliance of this section to Jean-Paul, but I will give myself credit because I feel that our particular dynamic, and the way I twinge and pry upon him, unhinges these things. In this way I felt like a filmmaker, like a fantasy of getting to be like my favorite filmmaker, Claire Denis, who would be so good at capturing the right moment, staying to the side, letting something gorgeously irreconcilable unfold.

You utilize a lot of material from your life — conversations with real people, documents, etc. Can you talk more about the synthesis between fiction and documentary? Can you talk about your trajectory in terms of working with these materials? I guess the simplest way to ask this is, have you always worked with documentary and fiction?

I learned some helpful things when writing Blackfishing the IUD, in which I incorporate other people’s narratives about how the IUD has harmed them. With Blackfishing, it became important that I made sure everyone knew I wouldn’t edit their writing. I carried over this respect (to stay off of other people’s words) in Revenge. Most significantly, with my inclusion of dialogues between me and the writer Ray Levy. All of Ray’s language in the book (save for some very minor moments where I needed to drive the fictional plot) comes directly from them, from recorded conversations in which they knew the basic plot of the book. So, they sort of played along (like, okay, we’re sitting at a café now, and I just spilled coffee on you), but also these were just very real conversations where we discussed our mutual experiences being the family scapegoat and how that’s shaped our lives to whatever extent. And that’s a conversation we’ve been having with each other for years.

And I gave Ray 25 percent of my advance because they’re in 25 percent of the book and I’ll give them 25 percent of whatever happens with it. I don’t take it for granted that they gave to this book. Fiction writers are supposed to embody all kinds of people and become them and speak for them, I guess, but this was a limit because I wasn’t about to speak for Ray, so documentary tactics were a response to a limit.

Oh, and as for the letters. That’s all true. But I did rewrite them into fictional impressions, because it turns out you don’t own letters, even if they were sent to you, even if they were given to you twice in one lifetime, even if they’re mean.

I have a basic question and I don’t know how to ask it in a smart way. In the second part of the book, there are “heart-stepping cows” imported from a German concentration camp. We see a cow literally stepping on Iris in a field. Where did this idea come from?

One day in the fall, I was walking around in the forest of the Clark Art Institute where cows notoriously roam. I was deep into a path and they all, it seemed, suddenly appeared on the path. I was so happy. Hello, everybody! Later it was late spring, and a pandemic had started, and my dad sent me this package right around this time that upset me. I was very tender and it was the deepest problem with me, the hardest thing. These letters … again … The scapegoat, again, and was I loved? I felt both irresolvably tender, maybe deeply broken, but also strong, like I could take anything because in my childhood I had taken things, and it had been too much. Anything, I felt, could stand on my heart, even a cow could stand on my heart, and based on all its hardness and sadness and strength, it (my heart) could go hoof to hoof with it. Just stand on me. I can take it. Look what I’ve taken. Look at what I was to my family, and I exist. That is what I felt with those letters searing a space for themselves on my lap, and so I sat in my chair and began to journal about the image of a cow standing on a heart in a field. Later, when it was much deeper into summer and I was deeper into writing and with the Artist’s Way in hand, the image came back in a usable, lighter, maybe comedic but also more macabre form.


Patrick Cottrell is the author of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace (McSweeney’s, 2017). He lives in Denver, where he teaches creative writing at The University of Denver.

LARB Contributor

Patrick Cottrell is the author of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace (McSweeney’s, 2017). He lives in Denver, where he teaches creative writing at The University of Denver.


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